Johnny Winter reaches deep inside
Review and Photos by Tony BonyataWhen Texas blues guitar slinger Johnny Winter tottered out onto the stage last Wednesday evening with cane in hand, only to be assisted to a seat in the front of the stage (where he remained for the duration of his thirteen song set) it may have, at first, appeared as though his days of laying down his own brand of white hot blues might soon be numbered. But with his still-nimble fingers, soulful heart and a taut, sinewy backing band, this 58-year old blues-rocker still showed, like so many other elderly blues greats before him, that he's still got his mojo working overtime.
Winter first began his career in the late '60s working with The Progressive Blues Experiment before branching out on his own with his debut Texas-spiced blues album Johnny Winter. The singer/ guitarist gained more commercial success throughout the '70s when he released albums with more of a rock 'n' roll kick to them, such as Still Alive and Well, Saints and Sinners and the two stunning live collections Johnny Winter And, and Captured Live. Then in 1977 Winter produced and performed on Muddy Waters' Grammy Award winning comeback album Hard Again, as well as using the talents of Waters on his own back-to-basics album Nothin' But The Blues. And while his rock 'n' roll sensibilities have never really left him, it was the soulful mourn of the blues that Johnny has predominately stuck to ever since.
So it was no surprise when the seated Winter, with long white pony-tail, grizzled white beard and a sleeveless black t-shirt exposing his rail-thin arms decorated in faded tattoos, tore through a rousing set of scorching blues numbers guaranteed to raise the roof off any juke joint. Although Winter's voice lacked the raw, guttural punch of his youth, his guitar-work, which still showcased a few blinding solos, more than made up for it. Despite having surgery on his hip last year (resulting from a bad fall) which he's still, apparently, slowly recovering from, as well as taking medication to combat his anxiety attacks, Winter, nonetheless, did what he does best, and that's play some damn fine guitar.
But even more than the frontman's own musical prowess, it was his choice of well-seasoned bandmembers - James Montgomery (harp/ vocals), Scott Spray (bass) and Wayne June (drums) - that really stoked the flames of this fiery performance. From Montgomery's smoking-gun harp solos, animated stage antics and ballsy vocals on a few numbers, including a rousing cover of Bo Diddley's "Mona," to the tighter-than-a-gnat's-ass-stretched-over-a-pickle-barrel rhythm section of Spray and June, Winter could've been in a coma and the house still would've come down around them.
Despite the fact that his guitar sounded strangely out of step on a cover of Waters' "Got My Mojo Working," Winter thankfully, however, wasn't in a deep sleep as he proved on the slower tempo blues of "Black Cat," the rollicking "Lone Wolf" (a new song from his forthcoming studio album due in the spring of 2003), as well as a cover of Freddie King's "Sen-sa-shun," where his devilish leads snaked throughout. The highlight of the evening was saved for last, when the guitarist traded in his Laser guitar for his prized Gibson Firebird on a harrowing version of J.B. Lenoir's "Mojo Boogie,"where he dished out a menacing slide guitar that left the packed house famished for more.
Opening for Winter was the 78-year old Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford. With nothing more than a drummer and his electric guitar, Ford, clad in a flannel shirt, beat-up baseball cap and warm smile, held sway with his audience with his own brand of rough hewed Delta blues and dusty, hypnotic rhythms performed on his guitar.
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